What is Play Therapy?

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What is play therapy?

Play is the natural way that children communicate. They often just don’t have the words necessary to clearly articulate what is going on for them emotionally. If they can’t express themselves through play, then they may act out.

Parents get frustrated when their children have behavioral issues. They feel helpless to understand what’s wrong and how to help. Play therapy can help the child explain the problem in their own words.

Play therapy is more than just playing with your child. It’s a structured therapeutic approach offered by a licensed therapist to help your child thrive.

I am educated and experienced in using play therapy to help children of all ages. I’m able to work with your child in this natural language to help identify the problem.

Therapeutic play also helps children resolve their issues. The play itself offers healing.

Through play therapy, I’m able to understand what the child is trying to express. I can then help you as the parent to understand this as well. At the same time, the play helps your child to process the underlying issues so that they can move past them.

What Issues Can Play Therapy Help With?

Play therapy can help children of all ages. It is particularly useful for young children and those with development or learning challenges.

It’s important to understand that children are not just “miniature adults.” They do not understand or discuss their feelings in the way that we do. Until approximately age 11, their brains lack abstract thought, but they can act out their emotions through play.

Even children who are older can benefit from play therapy, though. We just use different techniques and modes of expression as children age.

Play therapy can help children coping with a variety of situational and ongoing challenges including:

  • Anger including chronic anger and ongoing frustration
  • Behavioral issues
  • Living with chronic illness, their own or that of a close family member
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing challenges
  • Loss and grief related to divorce or death, including the death of a pet
  • Stressors at school including peer, teacher, and learning challenges
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Inappropriate or underdeveloped social skills

Play therapy is a powerful tool for helping children and families work through their challenges. Children of all ages can benefit from play therapy. In fact, parents and other adults can also gain self-understanding and a better quality of life through expressive therapy.

How Does Play Therapy Work?

In almost all types of therapy, the relationship that the individual develops with the patient provides a crucial role in healing. Play therapy is no exception. As I engage in play therapy with your child, I’m growing that relationship.

Through the therapeutic relationship, your child is able to experience a sense of safety, trust, and respect. As they work out their issues through play, that safe relationship provides them with a new experience that helps heal past issues and current frustrations.

Play Therapy Starts with Parents

Usually, play therapy with a child doesn’t begin until I’ve met the child’s parents. Since the child simply doesn’t have the skills to provide a verbal description of the problem, the parents are the ones that do that.

Parents who are new to therapy are sometimes intimidated by this part of the process. I’m not there to judge you as a parent. I’m there just to help. The consultation is a time and place for you to tell me what the problem is. For example, you might share that your child:

  • Is acting out at home or at school
  • Has tantrums that are not age-appropriate
  • Expresses chronic anger
  • Is withdrawn or seems depressed
  • Bullies other children or is on the receiving end of bullying
  • Is having trouble adjusting to changes in the family
  • Struggles to cope with learning difficulties or other health conditions

In addition to sharing what’s currently wrong, parents are able to give me a history. This gives me a better understanding of the child’s life and experiences. This helps set the stage for successful play therapy.

Additional Meetings with Parents

After that initial consultation, there may or may not be additional meetings with the parents. This depends on a variety of factors including the child’s age, developmental stage, family situation, etc.

Oftentimes, the second meeting is one with the parent as well as the child. This is the child’s first time meeting me. Young children, in particular, may adjust better to starting play therapy if they first meet me while in the presence of their parents. I also use this time to assess the child.

After that, I may suggest one more meeting with just the parents. If I do, it’s because it will give us a chance to discuss what I noticed in that first meeting with the child. This can help you to understand what’s likely to happen in play therapy in the weeks ahead.

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One-on-One Play Therapy for Children

Usually, although not always, play therapy is a one-on-one experience between the therapist and the child. However, in some cases, the parent may be present in the room. Other times, the therapy may even involve the parent.

One-on-one therapy is generally guided by the child, at least initially. This is a safe space where your child can freely express themselves. I’ll follow their lead to help them identify and explore their emotions and behaviors.

Play Therapy Empowers Parents and Improves Families

Regardless of whether or not the parent is in the therapy room during the child’s sessions, play therapy is designed to help the entire family.

A therapist cannot take the place of a parent. Instead, my role as a therapist is to help you and your child so that you can both be in a better place.

I want to help you to feel more confident as a parent. I want you to build upon your existing strengths and develop new tools for helping your child. Play therapy helps your child work through challenges, but it also helps you reconnect with your child in a new way.

Your child needs to feel heard, seen, loved, valued, respected, and appreciated. Play therapy can help your whole family support your child in this need.

What Happens in Play Therapy?

At this point, you might be thinking, “okay, but what actually happens in the therapy room?” Play therapy is an evidence-based approach that uses myriad different tools to help children express themselves.

Play therapy uses a wide range of different tried-and-tested tools to help children of all ages express themselves and explore their emotional world.

Some of the different tools that we may use in play therapy include:

  • Building blocks
  • Books
  • Clay
  • Drawing, coloring, and painting supplies
  • Dolls and stuffed animals
  • Games and puzzles
  • Sand trays
  • Toys of all different kinds

As your child plays, they will naturally act out the underlying issues that their minds are trying so hard to resolve. As they do, I can use therapeutic techniques to help them better process those issues. In therapy, they can also learn new skills for better communication, behavior, self-soothing, and emotional expression.

We all want to understand our children and help them to have the best life possible. Play therapy provides a way to gain that understanding.